The Search for Home

In the summer of 1994 I watched BBC news reports of the horrors unfolding in Rwanda. A country I had never heard of, very far away. But day after day, the scenes of people pouring over the borders of neighbouring countries to flee the mass killings unfolded on the television screen.

I still vividly remember a particular image. It was burned into my brain. A girl aged around nine held hands with a toddler who cried desperately for her mother as they walked over the border into Zaire. That summer I was nearly ten. My baby sister was nearly one. I was stopped in my tracks imagining what they might have seen, imagining how terrified they must feel as they put one foot in front of the other into the great unknown. With no one to protect them. I remember crying and asking my parents why we couldn’t stop this, why was no one doing anything to help them?

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As a teenager, I became more interested in what had happened in that tiny central African country. I read books like ‘We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families’ by Philip Gourevicth and watched films like ‘Hotel Rwanda’. It felt morbid, but I now realise I was looking for an answer as to how we (the ‘western world’, the powerful, the ones with the diplomatic organisations and the armies) had allowed such a thing to happen. One million people lost their lives in senseless violence of countryman against countryman for seemingly no reason at all? How do we stop that happening again? We must find out how it happened the first time.

Throughout, the image of that sibling pair crossing the border with nowhere to go refused to leave me. Traumatised, and with nothing in their hands but the other’s fingers. It’s what I think of when I hear the word ‘refugee’. It fills my heart with the desire to pick them up and take them home and welcome them, and show them love and help them put their lives back together.

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But why Rwanda now? Because twenty years later, I met Beatrice. Like me, she was ten in the summer of 1994. Like me she had younger brothers and sisters. But most unlike me, she was the one crossing the border. On foot. Literally running for her life from the massacres happening in her homeland of Rwanda. First and foremost she is my friend, and I couldn’t care less where she comes from. Our friendship all these years on as thirty-something year old women with massive hopes and dreams for the future of Rwanda and for refugees the world over is certainly no mistake. But I must tell you about her now as a strong and brave Rwandan woman because she has just courageously written and published her story, ‘The Search for Home’. Like me, she was ten in the summer of 1994. Like me she had younger brothers and sisters. But most unlike me, she was the one crossing the border. On foot. Literally running for her life from the massacres happening in her homeland.

You’ll have to read the book to hear the details of her story. I read it cover to cover in less than 24 hours. I cried and laughed. But mostly I was impacted by  the importance of identity. That in searching for home, Beatrice was actually searching for herself. Fleeing Rwanda involved time in makeshift refugee tents in Zaire, in a downtrodden area of Nairobi, in a middle class area of Nairobi, in poverty in Swaziland, and ultimately arriving in the UK. How do you know who you are when you are moving so often? When you have left a place where you had friends (who you have now seen murdered before your ten-year-old eyes) and family? Who are you when you used to be the best student in the class, but now you are not able to go to school? Who are you when you spoke one language, but now you have had to learn three more? Who are you when you have no passport and no way of obtaining one? Who are you when you finally get to a place where you think you’ll be safe and find that no one will befriend you because of where you came from in the first place?

Without knowing who we are we cannot ever be secure. We cannot plan or work towards a future. We cannot dream. Beatrice found her identity. She found her safety and security.

My teenage question remains – how do we stop this from happening again? But we haven’t found an answer yet, and more people suffering violence, petsecution and poverty are crossing into Europe than ever before. What do we have to offer? Yes, we have material goods that we can and should provide. But can we provide a safe place for people to build and rebuild their identity? Do we know who we are enough that we can show them who they are?

You can pre-order ‘The Search For Home’ (Available October 21st) here or obtain a copy in advance directly from the author.

 

Identity Crisis

This morning I woke up in a hotel on Romania at 5am UK time. Immediately, I fumbled for my TV remote. To my utter shock the UK had voted to leave the European Union… Well, around 52% of us. I stumbled down the breakfast to discuss with a group of Brits… When I say discuss, I actually mean express disbelief, shed heartfelt tears, moan, groan and make bitter-tinged jokes in that truly British way as the number of empty coffee cups grew. All week we’d joked about not being able to get back into the UK when we fly home today. We didn’t really think we’d be flying back to a very different country, uncertain of what the future holds. I looked at the faded EU wording on my passport with confusion. 


You see, we’re here to meet with others in the European church to discuss how best to welcome refugees to our continent. In our number (around 60) there are Germans, Dutch, Swiss, Austrian, Romanians, Finnish, Greek, Jordanian, Hungarian, Syrian, Sri Lankan, American, Brazillian, Peruvian and many more. Working together and collaborating on how to provide for the practical, spiritual and emotional needs of brothers and sisters of all faiths fleeing persecution, war and hardship in other parts of the world. How to show them the love of God. 

So we are sad. That our country has voted for isolation when we see such need for and beauty in collaboration. 

And I am deeply sad that (as it seems to me) many have voted out of fear, fear of the foreigner, of the stranger. That many people who have voted to leave are voting because they themselves are marginalised and downtrodden in the UK and felt this was the only way to assert themselves. That some people feel championing their national identity above all others is the answer to their problems. I was sad as I saw the rubbing together of hands of right wing groups at home and on the continent.

And then we worshipped God. And we prayed. 

God is sovereign. We don’t pretend to know if this was his will. Or if he’s shaking his head in despair. He works in ways that don’t make sense to us on paper. Who am I to know? What do I know? He works all things together for good. He uses every twist and turn in his great redemptive plan for the world He loves. We need not fear as the mountains (or the pound for that matter) seem to crash into the sea. 

I felt there was something I could learn. And maybe it will be useful for you as you scroll through the wails of despair on social media.

I don’t believe it is a coincidence that we as children of God are here together this week talking about welcoming foreigners, strangers… And that in doing so, a theme that emerged time after time  was identity. 

A refugee fleeing their land has been stripped of their place of belonging, their national identity and this is traumatic and terrifying. But I know someone who provides a sure, strong, unshakeable identity rooted in unconditional love and acceptance. And this is what I am called to do – to share that with others. Not just people arriving from other shores in unspeakable circumstances, but also to those who are pulling up draw bridges in fear because they too have yet to discover their true and most beautiful identity. And also to those throwing their hands in despair at separation from our  union with our neighbours. 

What will your voice say over the next days and weeks?  Can you respect those who voted opposite to your own opinion? Do you have something to say to counter negativity and fear?  Can you spread light, hope and love?

Resting in the knowledge that God is sovereign, with ways that are higher than ours is not passive. It is active love in the face of fear. 

PS You’re allowed the occasional joke about moving to a likely-soon-independent Scotland. 

The EU Referendum: What would Jesus think?

This week I wanted to post about the EU referendum, but I had a feeling that I knew someone who could write much better on this subject than I could myself. Therefore, this post is guest-blogged by Oli May. Aside from being my very good friend, Oli is a former law enforcement officer who now works in the field of international humanitarian aid.

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If you held a competition to rank all the moments of my life in order to identify my finest, the fiercest competition would be for the bottom places – not the top. One of the hottest contenders for last place occurred at a Delirious gig in Southampton, at which I was stewarding in my teenage years.

We were given bottles of water, and Martin Smith (FOR IT IS HE) invited anyone who had decided to follow Jesus to make a practical commitment by approaching a steward and receiving a physical ‘anointing’ with the water. A man and a woman came up to me.

‘Are you a steward?’ Asked the man.

‘Yes,’ I smiled, oozing spirituality.

‘It’s my wife,’ he said. ‘She’s thirsty.’

I nodded sagely, channelling my best inner vicar. ‘You need the water of life,’ I replied.

She nodded enthusiastically. ‘Oh, yes!’

They seemed a little confused when I suggested that I lead them in prayer first, and thanked the Lord for her courageous decision and for bringing us together.

As I began to dump the water over her head, she leapt back, exclaiming: ‘No, no I’m actually thirsty!’

‘What are you doing?!’ Shrieked the husband.

Not my finest moment.

Alas, this EU Referendum campaign has been far from Britain’s finest moment. Rather than informed debate that showcased the best of British thoughtfulness and civility, it has proved to be divisive and frightening. Age, ‘class’ (whatever that is) and education level are all, apparently, dividing us. We’ve also seen people on both sides abandon careful analysis and rely on base emotions – especially fear. Whatever the outcome, the social damage could be deep – risking any ills that derive from it being blamed on the ‘winning’ side.

Let’s be clear on something. The idea that God would want the church to vote a certain way, and that you know what it is, is dangerous. I am convinced that God is more interested in why we vote one way or the other, rather than how we vote.

Every one of us, whether we’re a grizzled old lifer or a fresh-out-of-the-shrink-wrap new Christian, is undergoing discipleship – learning how to think like Jesus in our daily lives. Voting is one of many opportunities to take a step back and think, what values would Jesus want me to take into account as I make my decision? It’s not so much ‘what would Jesus do,’ as ‘how would Jesus think?’

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll be voting to remain. But this is not a Christian case for ‘Remain.’ Instead, in this post I’ll explain how some of the important values in my faith interact with that decision, in case these values are helpful to either side, or anybody still undecided. A range of Christian values could offer guidance for us, but there are three that I’ve found particularly helpful – here they are, and how I am interpreting them.

God calls us to be outward-looking

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”’

Mark 12:30-31

God calls us to genuinely love others. Not just our families, or those with British passports – everyone. So despite the best efforts of some politicians and media outlets, I want to live out a real ‘love’ for people beyond the borders of the country I happen to live in.

If I love someone, I want to partner with them, co-operate with them (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12), help them – and be helped by them. I don’t mistrust that person, pillory them or accuse them – especially if its something somebody else has told me about, rather than something of which I have first-hand knowledge. Love, for me, is about service – how can I serve, rather than be served?

‘For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

Mark 10:45

If I wanted a country that reflected my faith, it would be one that was prepared to take some risks on the basis that what we put out into the world is more important than what we take from it. For me, agreeing to pool power and funds with others, in order to obtain a greater good for all, seems consistent with this.

How about you? How will your vote reflect your love for others?

God calls us to do good in the world

‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.’

James 1:27

I passionately believe that true faith shows itself through a desire to help our fellow humans, fight injustice, and – life by life – improve the world.

But some of these problems are too big for Britain to tackle alone, and now that the world is smaller, we can’t ignore them. This is now a world where villains in Nigeria can directly contact vulnerable people in Swansea and defraud them. Where an Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone could hit the streets of Manchester in days. Transport and telecommunications mean that other countries are now, basically, next door.
Tackling international problems is hugely complicated, with a blistering array of barriers. The EU gives us bridges. And while Britain is a member of many international associations, none gives us the reach and influence of the EU. As a former law enforcement officer, I’ve seen first-hand the amazing capability of European Arrest Warrants, and the information and intelligence-sharing organisation Europol to tackle transnational crime. Working in humanitarian aid and international development, I am convinced that Britain’s EU membership heightens its ability to deal with humanitarian crises like Syria and the refugee crisis.

It seems to me that we don’t tackle these problems by increasing the barriers between us and other countries, but by decreasing them.

But what do you think? How will the need to help others less fortunate than you inform the way you vote?

God calls us to humility

‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.’

Philippians 2:3

My wife is a doctor, and I am very much not, which is why it’s sensible to listen to her when I’m ill and not embark on my usual approach to healthcare, which sits somewhere between the Boy Scouts and the Middle Ages. Apparently, when I accidentally sliced my hand with a kitchen knife, a visit to the Emergency Department was more sensible than my A-Team-esque attempt to use our Charlie & Lola themed sticking plasters. Who knew?

Now, I am neither an economist, nor a political scientist, EU expert, nor futurist. I, like almost everybody in the UK, struggle to evaluate some of the arguments – especially the economic one (although some proper grown-ups have helpfully provided Ladybird-esque summaries, check out this one from Nicholas Barr).

‘For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.’

Romans 12:3-5

It’s easy when we’re involved in debates to dismiss experts with an opposing view with a wave of the hand: ‘Oh, that’s what they would say’. Similarly, we need to be careful not to reduce highly complex issues to over-simplified ones which we can understand – that would be like trying to repair a nuclear power station by thinking about it like a toaster.

Instead, I find it wise to allow one’s views to be shaped by those who might know more, provided that I have considered from where their opinions might derive. At present, the list of experts supporting ‘Remain’ is blistering.While some economists have supported ‘Leave,’ for example, they are dwarfed in number by those writing for ‘Remain.’ The benefits for scientific research mean that UK universities have largely backed the campaign to Remain, and only this week concerns over what Brexit might mean for the NHS led to Dr Sarah Wollaston switching sides in the campaign.

What about you? Who are you allowing to shape your views – and what are their qualifications?

Conclusion

The world is an ambiguous and complicated place, and when we’re talking politics then we’re discussing the most ambiguous and complicated issues of all. Often, things that seem instinctively ‘right’ start to change and shift upon closer analysis. For me, helpful insights derive from the core values of my faith.

The night that glitter glue came to church

I’m expecting an announcement in my church bulletin this week. It will read something very diplomatically put along the lines of, “We gently remind you that there are no planned activities for children are our Sunday evening services and you may wish to consider leaving your children at home”. It will be my children that provoked this announcement. And it would most likely be warranted.

Each week, I kiss them goodbye as they finish their dinner and head out. For time. And space. With God. Just me. It’s a privilege to be allowed this time, and I love it. The evening service at Ivy Church in this season is named ‘Presence’ and that’s what it’s about. The presence of God. I go, giving Him permission to do whatever He wants. I leave ready for whatever the week throws at me. Filled up so I can pour it back out. If this is a new idea for you and you want to know more, get in touch. We can have a cuppa and a chat.

This week saw a change in plans. Half term holiday. Kids who slept in late, who napped in the car as we made our way down the motorway on a 5 hr journey from Glasgow back to Manchester. Kids who missed church this morning and knew it. Who asked me when they could go to church… could they go to night-time church? A husband who’d been holed up studying in a silent house whilst we were away, needing time with his small ones and needing church too. So… lets all go? Why not?

Firstly, Boy (aged nearly 6) decided he MUST take his brand new guitar, given to him by his grandfather as an early birthday present this morning. Given the major ructions provoked when I told him he couldn’t take it out to brunch earlier in the day, I decided I should probably let him. Not an entirely inappropriate choice of item in a church where music is more than encouraged. We later discovered that the case for said guitar is VERY rustly… and that he enjoyed putting the case on and taking it off again in those quiet contemplative, ‘presence’-type moments between songs just a wee bit too much.

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Of course, if Boy was taking a guitar, Girl (aged 3) must also take an instrument. For she must do everything he does. She chose a drum. Obviously. Because such is her nature. Loud. Brash. Unmistakably herself. She placed it on the floor by her feet. I nervously eyed it, wondering when she’d choose to let loose. But her voice was her instrument of choice. And not her singing voice.  Her demanding voice, her whining voice, her accusatory-he-touched-my-food voice… her “I NEED A WEE!!!!” voice. Her voice and our house keys. Initially an endearing instrument, they later became slightly irritating.

And then there was the food. We have beautiful volunteers who serve a selection of snacks immediately prior to the service. I’m no fool. I had grabbed a plate and loaded that baby high with pineapple, grapes, tomatoes, raspberries. I had squirrelled it away for that moment when they would need shushing. However, not being a fool, I have also managed to raise two non-fools and they had immediately spotted and scoffed the lot. And then spent those quiet contemplative moments shouting for more.

So there were multiple toilet trips, several trips out the door to replenish the fruit supply, another for a cup of water, lots of hissed ‘sshhhhhh’ and whispered ‘do-you-want-to-go-home-right-nows’ and desperate digs in the bag for pencils, glitter pens and paper. All the while paranoid, mortified thoughts. What will people think? That I’m forcing my poor, tired children out past their bedtime for my own benefit? Selfish mother. That I can’t control them. That they’ve not been disciplined adequately. Bad mother. That I’m an idiot for thinking this was a good idea. Delusional mother. That we should have left before now, quit while you’re ahead and leave everyone in peace, Riches family. At times I wanted to disappear, for the ground to swallow me up, for us not to be there anymore…

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No.

Firstly, because I go to a church full of pretty nice people. Understanding people. But even if I didn’t, even if I was being silently (or otherwise) judged for my parenting choices, it wouldn’t matter.

Because their spiritual heritage is my responsibility. To teach them to come before God with their church family is my job.

Because praying isn’t just what we do before bed and sometimes before meals, and when we’re scared or ill. Tonight they heard the leader of our church talk about God saying he would grant us ANYTHING in prayer and they were encouraged to ask him for that anything… their own anything. They learned that praying isn’t just something that the four of us do in various combinations depending on who’s with them and when. They prayed with their grown-up friends and they saw their parents pray with people they’d never met before.

Because in the car we discussed what church actually is, prompted by the fact that this service was in a location other than the one they are used to calling ‘church’… Is it a building, or is it the people?

Because church isn’t just about them dancing to a couple of songs and then heading out to the (extremely well organised and high quality) kids work. It isn’t just about them. And sometimes they do need to learn to be quiet and listen to what the grown up is saying.

Because I should have encouraged her to beat her drum; to channel her passion and enthusiasm into a joyful noise.  Because sometimes I love Him so much, I want to spread glitter glue everywhere.

But mostly because a nearly-6-year-old stood in the congregation with his very own guitar round his neck and strummed along and felt that he was contributing to the praises rising to Heaven. Because a rebellious 3-year-old finally let me pick her up, dance and sing with her and wrapped her arms around me so tight that I was able to whisper in her ear that this cuddle is how much Daddy God loves her, that he holds her just like this.

Because I never want them to think I’m embarrassed by them. Ever.

And because it’s not about me and my insecurities about my parenting. It’s actually not about me at all. And if they help me take myself a little less seriously by interrupting my serious post-service discussions about my Important Church Tasks with shouts of joy that they have identified Kenya on a map… that’s probably all to the good.

And what can we learn from them? Could we take it that far? They are noisy. They are clumsy. They are honest. They make mistakes and are not bothered about picking up and trying again. They know their own voices and they are not afraid to make requests. They believe their needs are important and worth a response. When I tell them that they are a Prince and  Princess of the Most High King, they giggle with glee and walk tall without questioning this identity.

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This is not to say that they will be joining me every week. Oh no. And it’s not an argument for children to be flooding into our evening services. I totally get the need for distraction-free worship. I need it too. But perhaps next week I will notice their sticky pineapple fingerprints on the chairs and their glitter glue marks on the floor and be reminded of the lessons they have left behind as they traipse merrily off to bed, guitar and drum in hand.

 

 

Living Water

It’s early May. Two weeks ago it snowed. But today skies are blue and the temperature is 28 degrees. Classically British, we have pounced on this ‘summer day’, fearing that it might be the only one we get and trying to make sure we do all those summer things in one day – beach, barbecue, park, ice lollies, get sunburnt…

And then we’re in church singing loudly. Asking God to make it rain. Comedy. Totally not in a rainy kind of mood. But we’re probably not talking weather systems…

“Looks like tonight, the sky is heavy
Feels like the winds are gonna change
Beneath my feet, the earth is ready
I know its time for heaven’s rain, it’s gonna rain.

’cause its living water we desire to flood our hearts with holy fire “

Christian water imagery is thick and liberally applied. But are we really talking about?

As we stamped and shouted to these lyrics, I remembered something I’d read recently about The Feast of the Tabernacles. Now a ‘tabernacle’ sound like one of your granny’s mantelpiece ornaments… or maybe something that might grow in a sweaty crevice in your foot, but bear with me… The Feast of the Tabernacles is when Jews build rickety temporary shelters (‘sukka’ or ‘tabernacles’) to remember how they lived during their years wandering in the wilderness during the exodus from Egypt, whilst they waited to enter The Promised Land. The point was to remember that security does not come from the walls you build, but from God himself. To remember the intimacy they had with God each day as they relied on him for manna to sustain them.

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The festival falls in early autumn when the land has been dry and parched all summer (the setting for this feast is clearly not Manchester, but use your imagination). On the final day of the festival the priests performed something called a ‘water liberation ceremony’. These guys went nuts – singing, dancing and passionately praying for rain. The theme was joy. Expectant joy at what was to come; the rainy blessing God would bestow on them.

We in the rainy UK might struggle to understand the need for rain. Growing up in the west of Scotland and then relocating to the North West of England, it’s never something I’ve felt the need to beg God for. But yet there are still tens of millions around our planet who know exactly what these priests meant as they cried out. If the rains fail, they don’t eat. Their children starve. We don’t hear about it often, but it is still happening. In January 2016, UNICEF estimated that 10.2 million Ethiopian people were in need of food aid due to the failure of two consecutive rains.

So imagine these priests stamping and shouting and clapping and dancing for the rain they needed on the last day of Sukkot. They’ve just been living in their huts made of twigs during the festival. It hasn’t rained in months. And there’s a real threat that the rains might fail. They know they need God.

And in walks Jesus.

John chapter 7 describes Jesus going to the temple on this very water-divining-foot-stomping day.

‘On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.’

What was he saying? To the Jews listening, this statement was massively controversial. Some said he was a prophet. Some said he was the Messiah. Some plotted to kill him. Why? He is saying that he can provide the very thing they need. Water. And water equates to life at this point. And as far as they know the only person who can provide that is God Himself. So… Heresy? Or pure wonder at God in the flesh standing before them…?

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But more than that, Jesus is foretelling a time to come. A time when his death and resurrection make it possible for him to leave the Holy Spirit with his followers forever (Acts 2:1-13). From then on, there would be no need to build temporary shelters in the wilderness to dwell with God. The chasm between man and God is crossed, and God comes to dwell within us.

The living water from Him… within us… flowing out again…

Unlike the changing fortunes of a British summer, this is weather we can trust.

Open Space

I am hopelessly claustrophobic. The back seat of a 3-door car is an impossibility. I sit on the end of the row in any large gathering – church, cinema, lecture theatres. And I sit near the front not because I’m a geek (though I totally am!) or extra holy, but so I can’t see the sea of people around me, encroaching on my space.
I blame my brother. Two years younger than me, he delighted in reducing his bossy older sister to hysterical tears by holding the duvet tight over my head whenever we got into one of those lion cub play fights at the ages of 6 and 4.
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I don’t get in lifts. Except by accident. This happened recently. I was too polite (and too busy chatting) to argue as my friend headed for the first floor lift. We were only going to the ground floor. Totally unnecessary use of an enclosed metal box; but at least we just had to go down one floor. Except that when we got in someone else pushed the button for the fifth floor. Nightmare. Especially because the building we were in was pretty shoddy and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the lift did break and we got stuck, or if the emergency button was broken. I started to talk to another risk-taking lift traveller, distracting myself. The door opened on the fifth floor. Wrong  one, he’d wanted the eighth floor. So he hit the button. However, I’d hit the ground floor button first (phew!) so it would all be over soon. The doors closed. I was still talking incessantly, trying not to think about my entrapment… But we didn’t go anywhere. Nowhere. No movement. Panic rose. The walls closed in… Everything went a bit blurry. Until my ever-helpful friend pointed out that I actually hadn’t pressed the button at all. Oops.
The idea of being trapped, enclosed with no exit renders me to a quivering wreck.
I have always said that being asked to have an MRI scan would be one of the worst things that could happen to me. Except that it wouldn’t, cause I just wouldn’t have one. I’d rather succumb to whatever the problem was that necessitated the scan in the first place. I’m definitely less afraid of death than of small spaces.
And God has a way of working in our biggest fears. I often find that when I put my foot down and say ‘never’ to something that that thing is exactly what happens. Not because He’s cruel or mean, but because He won’t stand for His children being afraid or held back. And it’s usually through the shattering of these fears that greatest freedom and experience of His love comes. He is bigger than those fears. I’ve known that for years and years… For the big fears. But is He interested in my irrational fear?
So I was sent an appointment for an MRI scan. Oh joy. The background reasons as to why it was felt necessary are not important. Please don’t worry or even think about those. I didn’t.
But I did stress about the scan quite a lot. Thankfully, it came at lunchtime on the day I finished a week of nightshifts, so I was up to my neck in emergency Caesarean sections, maternity triage and post-op reviews right up until the moment I got in the car to go. Immersed in my beloved world of delivering babies, I didn’t think about it.  But I did worry that the fact I was pretty dis-inhibited due to being entirely sleep deprived would lead to a complete nervous breakdown on hitting the scan room.
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And suddenly there it was. The tunnel of doom. It’s okay. I can do this. It’s going to require a lot of praying. And I’m going to close my eyes. I hope Jesus shows up. They said He would… But can it happen for me? Will He show up for me? Surely that kind of experience only happens for other people…? I’ve met Him, I know Him. I trust Him. But surely He’s got bigger things to worry about than my petty fear of enclosed spaces?
I lay on the bed. It would be okay. Then before I had the chance to shut my eyes, the radiographer was fastening an almighty solid plastic cage over my head, centimeters from my eyes. I could just see out. Just.
“No. No, I can’t do this. Wait a minute…. No.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, give me a minute. Maybe don’t talk to me if that’s okay.”
I shut my eyes. I took a deep breath and there He was. Actual Jesus. And the next fifteen minutes were so amazing I didn’t want to get out. Honestly.
And later I lay still again. And I reflected on my experience.
I am a person who moves. Never still. All week during my nightshifts my colleagues had commented on my relentless need to be doing. “You don’t sit still.”
The conversation between me and God about sitting still versus ‘doing’ is an ongoing one. It’s a beautiful dialogue, if painful at times. It’s not over yet… But I can’t help but think that meeting Him in the jaws of an arch nemesis has important lessons. I had to be still. Literally, physically still. No movement. There was nothing I could do but rely on Him. No one to talk to, nothing to look at, no distracting thoughts. Held tight in a tiny space. Nowhere to run to.
And in that tightest, most trapped space was the greatest, most wide open space I have ever known.
But most importantly, He cares enough for me to show up to conquer my most petty fear. He wants every part of my trust. And He doesn’t disappoint.

To strike or not to strike?

Anyone who knows me will testify that I do not lack passion. They would tell you that when I believe in a cause I will go the distance, take the necessary action… However dramatic. Aged 16 sitting down in the street during a protest against the Iraq war.  Coordinating the staging of a ‘die-in’ outside an arms trade expo as a student. I’m bolshy enough. 

Among my great passions is healthcare free at the point of access for everyone. Regardless of gender, ethnicity, geography, class… of whether they pay taxes. Yes, even Starbucks and Amazon CEOs. Hm. Maybe. In my country, the NHS embodies this. I love this institution. I love being part of it. As long as my children were well cared-for in my absence and my basic material needs were met, I’d even do my job for free. I’m passionate about providing high quality care. About treating my patients as I’d want my children and my parents treated. That’s why I come in early, stay late, go without food and water and toilet breaks. You don’t need those if you don’t have time to drink anyway.

So it’s surprising to me that I’ve had to do so much soul-searching about whether or not to participate in strike action by junior doctors this week. I haven’t flinched over the last strike actions. But this week is different. It sees the removal of emergency care. Strike action that calls for even those of us in acute specialities such as mine to down tools and walk out of the building 8am-5pm for two consecutive days.

I’ve had to ask myself some questions.

Do I doubt the cause? No. The contract due to be imposed on junior doctors across England from August is unfair and unsafe.
It’s unfair that I’ll probably lose out financially. I don’t care about money. I really don’t. As long as I can afford the basics. But even those may be called into question under the new contract. And I need time with my husband and children on days of the week when they are not at work or in school.  My 5 year old does not think Saturday morning is a normal working day. BUT, although I’m not sure what unfair changes will be necessary for my family from August, my faith in a God who does immeasurably more than meet my basic needs tells me that we will be okay.

The contract is unsafe. And this is my biggest worry. Spreading the same amount of butter on a larger slice of toast equals a thinner layer of butter, no? Doesn’t take a brain surgeon to work that one out. Or a renal physician. They’re actually the cleverest out of the lot of us. The proposed rota changes are eye-watering. Doctors will be sleep-deprived and jet-lagged. Finishing a night shift one morning (still sleep-deprived from the first night) and starting a day shift the next day? It takes me days to come on and off night shifts under the current system. In that situation, do you want me holding the scalpel that delivers your baby? Your bladder, bowels and your baby certainly aren’t keen.

Most importantly though, I believe that breaking junior doctors would be a major step on the road to success for a health secretary who has admitted that privatising the NHS is a desirable goal.

So, no. I don’t doubt the cause.

Am I worried that patient safety will be compromised during strike action? I can honestly say that I do not believe a single patient will come to harm in my department. We have a huge team of non-training grade and consultant doctors who are loving the chance to cover for us. Because they believe in this cause too. And because they actually miss the kind of patient contact you get on the front line. I’m not lying, one of them actually said that. We might have had to show one of our most senior consultants how to use a bleep, but we’re all sorted now. He’s got his bleep license.

So why the hesitancy then? Why not strike?

Because of a bit of me worries about what it says to my patients that I would leave them in their hour of need. In their emergencies. I became a doctor to help people. I have compassion. Can I walk away?

So I did what I do as a follower of Jesus. I asked God. Because I’m used to him answering, directing, guiding me. And with all my actions, I live to honour Him. I hate it when he tells me the choice is up to me. But that’s what He did. Both options are okay.

So I did what I do as a doctor. I weighed up the risks and the benefits. We’re good at that.

I have decided to strike. Because my patients will be fine tomorrow. But they will not be fine when the new contract is imposed and I cannot look after them to an adequate standard because I am spread too thinly. This butter will melt into the toast and you won’t even be able to taste its saltiness. And because they will definitely not be fine when our government have privatised the NHS. Profit and medicine do not mix. Ask the Americans.

I have decided to strike because I support my colleagues. Because we are a team and I want to stand with them. Because they need me more than my patients do tomorrow. Because I make a great picket-line brew and I have the best flask. Because at the government’s own admission the contract discriminates against women, doctors doing much-needed research and single parents. Because I have a friend who is a female medical student who wants to have babies one day and is seriously doubtful as to whether that’s possible in the post-imposition world.

God doesn’t need me to strike to save the NHS. He can do all things. I could go to work and pray for justice for myself, my colleagues and my patients. I believe he’d be more than okay with that. But I also believe He gave me passion for a reason. And He also made me pretty good at non-violent direct action. And I’m pretty sure He’s okay with me doing that too. But most of all I’ll be praying. For all of us and our beloved old lady, the NHS and all the people who have the passion and privilege to care for.

 

Welcome

Have you got a spare room? It doesn’t need to be very big. Or very beautiful. A bed or a sofa bed would do. A small space in the corner of your life for someone who needs it.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Matthew 25:34-36

Over the last 48 hrs or so there has been an explosion. An explosion of awareness. Of desire to do ‘something’ to help. Getting that something right is really important. Everyone seems to be trying to fill vans with ‘stuff’ and get it to Calais, maybe further afield to Greece, Italy, Turkey… Including me. That’s great. It shows that we care, we want to respond to human suffering, human need. And from what I hear from those on the ground in Calais, ‘stuff’ is still welcome – we’re not doing a bad thing. But as the volunteers at Calais camps find themselves swamped with (sometimes unsorted and unhelpful) donations, I can’t help but wonder if this is the absolute best ‘something’ we can give.

Below follows a bit about my experience of hosting asylum seekers in our home. I’ve included a bit of an FAQ at the bottom in case you’re in a hurry. This is not a story about the heroic Riches family and how they scoop refugees off the street and look after them. This is about the ladies that have stayed with us, and the immense blessing they have been to us. The laughs we’ve had, all we’ve learned, seeing my 18 month old being read a story in Somali… It’s not always easy – there are cross-cultural differences galore, there are times when you just want it to be only your family in the house, when another adult seems to take up too much space. But look at the need. And think about whether you can make the sacrifice. It’s harder than bundling up your old clothes and putting them on a van headed somewhere where they might get to people who need them. But true sacrifice is what is asked of us. And true sacrifice is where the blessing lies.

In 2009 my husband and I opened our home to our first asylum-seeker guest through the wonderful organisation The Boaz Trust. She was called I and she came from the Congo. She spoke mainly French. Why did we do it? Because we knew that our city was full of literally tens of thousands of ‘failed’ asylum seekers with no recourse to public funds, nowhere to stay, and no way of returning to their home country. In many cases they were (are) not actually allowed to be returned to their country of origin as they’re deemed too unsafe by the foreign office. But not unsafe enough to warrant asylum here… Go figure. Anyway, that’s another blog post for another day.

So there we were. With a random African woman living in our house. With all her stuff. Singing French songs at the top of her voice. Cooking goat in my kitchen. It was odd to start off with, I won’t lie. She didn’t get in our way. All of the guests we have had over the years have tended to keep to themselves, unless we have specifically drawn them out. We invited her to join us for the occasional meal, but mainly she ate her own meals in her own time. She was out a lot of the time. But sometimes she would sit with me, having a coffee, and chatting in Frenglish. She would throw her head back and laugh. I remember one morning trying to engage her in a serious conversation about healthcare in the Congo… with my International Health and Development hat on, I asked her some serious questions about how things worked. Including asking her why she thought people in Africa had so many kids. I expected her to say that they needed them to look after the old people, to work to earn money for the family… She gave a wide smile and said that she thought it was because there was nothing to do but have sex when you didn’t have a job. Unexpected. But that’s one of the things I love about meeting people from other cultures.

I will tell the truth, sometimes my guests have irritated me. One lady called G who came from Nigeria insisted on doing the washing up in our teeny tiny kitchen. We were eating with some guests in the next room. I had asked her not to do it as the dishes were literally stacked to the ceiling as I’d cooked something ridiculously ambitious. As we relaxed with our wine, I heard a shriek from the kitchen and went running to find she had smashed one of my wedding gifts – a Le Creuset ramekin. One of a set of 6. To this day I only have 5 ramekins – never having been able to justify the extortionate cost of buying 2 (and also a bit anal about the thought of owning 7… still an odd number). I look at them and smile, remembering her. I was so mad at the time though, I’m not going to lie. Why hadn’t she just listened to me? Why didn’t she do what I asked? And now I know – because she just wanted to help. We were helping her, she probably felt indebted and awkward about it. She was probably looking for something to do to bless us in return. And that’s what my broken designer ramekin stands for.

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And then there was A. From Somalia. The other ladies stayed with us before children entered our lives. But A came later. She moved into Noah’s room when it became apparent that after 10 months, he was still not up for moving out of our bed. His room seemed wasted and empty. Enter A. She was in her early twenties, and her story was atrocious. A mother of four babies – one had died shortly after birth. She had come from a village where militiamen regularly arrived, gang-raped the women (including her), fought with the men… and left again. But they knew that they’d come back. One day when they came, intense fighting broke out. She was separated from her husband and three children. She never found them again. She searched for them, but her life was in danger and she ended up in the UK. As she played with Noah, laughing and smiling, I struggled to comprehend the hurt that must be inside her. I couldn’t even imagine.

Are you ready to help someone like A? To give her the stability of a roof over her head, people who care about how she is and want to help her?

There’s a million excuses we could give about why we can’t do it… Here are a couple of things you might be thinking.

  1. My house isn’t big enough – really? Do you realise how little space many of these people are used to? is it dry and warm? Sometimes that’s all it takes to be better than the alternative.
  2. What if they steal/damage my stuff? – get to know them, this fear will disappear. Why would they jeopardize their only safe place to stay? And what do you have that you’d miss if it was gone that wasn’t worth the risk of helping someone in need? As they say, you can’t take it with you when you go… As for breakages, see above.
  3. What about my kids? What better way for them to learn about other cultures, learning to serve and sacrifice, learning another language even. Baby Noah being read books and sung songs in Somali by A is one of my treasured memories.
  4. What if I go away for the weekend? – Boaz can usually find an alternative host for a few nights if you’re not happy for your guest to stay in your house.
  5.  Do I have to feed them, because I’m not sure I can afford it? – not necessarily., but it really helps. They don’t have a lot as they don’t have access to benefits and aren’t allowed to work. Some get weekly food parcels (which aren’t great). If you really can’t afford to make an extra portion then ask around – I’m sure someone who is not as brave as you in taking someone into their home will happily crowd fund a few hot dinners for your guest.
  6.  I need my spare room back for the weekend as I have guests coming – as above in number 4, arrangements might be able to be made for your asylum-seeker guest. If not, could your guests stay elsewhere for the weekend? Travelodge?- it could be their contribution to your effort. Or with your friends?

Feel free to get in touch if you want to ask anything further. Get in touch with The Boaz Trust if I’ve convinced you.

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt

– Deuteronomy 10:19

The Name for God

‘Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of little children’

– William Thackery

Mothering Sunday. Pink everywhere. Florists breaking their traditional working hours to trade on a Sunday. On the streets unkempt men walk quickly having ‘just popped out for something’, clutching paper and plastic-wrapped carnations in one hand and a pint of milk in the other. Restaurants have papered over their usual Sunday offers, knowing they won’t need to sweeten the deal to haul the customers in today. Mothers of young children unwrap delicate parcels to find painted pasta necklaces and hand-printed cards. Dads everywhere breathe a sigh of relief that preschool teachers had the forethought they lacked.

This is the day we celebrate motherhood. We celebrate it because we recognize the sacrifice that it entails. Or we think we do. Before I was a mother myself I knew that there was something mysterious about  motherhood, that I didn’t quite grasp. Then I became a mum, and now I know that there are things about being in this role that only other mothers can relate to.  The following are the three things I find most difficult about being a mum.

First of all there is the, sheer, utter, complete exhaustion. As a student I frequently stayed up til dawn debating, talking, joking with friends… sometimes night after night. Then I’d spend the whole of the next day awake. I was tired. But not like this. As a junior doctor I’ve done night-shift after night-shift responsible for all the medical or surgical patients in a large hospital, with sick patients and grumpy medical registrars. It was tiring. But not like this. When the sun rose, I  drove home, responsible for no one but myself, and could crawl under the duvet and sleep all day long in reasonable amounts of peace (barring the occasional knock from a postman with a parcel or a drill on the road outside). With a baby, the jolts from sleep are unrelenting. The somebody who needs you (and only you) is indifferent to the colour of the sky, the number of hours you have been on duty or the last time you ate. If you’re lucky, you might get a nap in the daytime whilst the baby sleeps. If you’re unlucky, the baby falls asleep, you rush round tidying, putting on washing, maybe preparing some dinner, then fall into bed hoping for sleep just as the baby’s familiar tones drift across the baby monitor, pulling you to your feet again. If you have an older child, your chances of sleep in the day are slim to none. You might as well just forget it and slug down the coffee. Gradually, thinking and dreaming about sleep becomes boring.  You resign yourself to achieving fewer and fewer hours of the mythical stuff. You stop talking about it, and just laugh hollowly when asked about it.

Then there is the extreme lack of alone time. Not even when you want to use the bathroom. If you shut the door when you’re on the loo, somebody is soon shouting for you from downstairs. Or has clocked where you’ve gone to, and started asking you questions through the door. Currently my younger child will not tolerate being separated from me for the time it takes for a quick trip to the loo. Thus, I rarely get through an entire wee without having to stop (very good for the pelvic floor) and rescue my crawler from the shower tray, trapping her finger in the bathroom cupboards or bumping her face off the bath as she pulls to stand. When people ask me how I’m getting on back at work, how am I managing four full days a week in a busy A&E department and having two wee ones at home, I often smile and say that I appreciate that I at least get to go to the loo on my own at work. And that I get to finish an entire cup of (still hot) tea during my breaks. And if I can’t perform normal bodily functions alone, the chances that I can do much else alone are totally scuppered.

A third problem that is particularly true for mothers who breastfeed is the claustrophobic feeling that your body is no longer your own. Your time, your patience and your multi-tasking skills are being tested to the limit, but if that weren’t enough, these little people even want your very physical being. It starts before they’re born. I enjoyed my first pregnancy immensely, but even then there was the feeling that my body had been hijacked by a tiny human holding court somewhere deep inside. By the end of my second pregnancy, suffering from antenatal depression and a variety of seemingly trivial, but utterly agonising pregnancy-related physical complaints, I looked forward to nothing more than my abdomen and pelvis being vacated. And this despite the fact that this time I knew what to expect from labour (ie not the candles, birth pools and massage oils I’d dreamed up during my first pregnancy). Then they’re out. Breastfeeding is beautiful. I can hand on heart say that it saved my bond with my first child during the long months of post-natal depression I suffered after his birth. But it does mean (at least with my babies) that you have someone literally sucking the life out of you pretty much round the clock. I’m not kidding. I was trying to wash my hair in the bath the other day and my youngest latched on for a post-breakfast snack. Your body when you have young children is not only exhausted, but beaten and bruised from feeding them, carrying them around on your hip all day and sleeping awkwardly so that you don’t disrupt their fragile sleep-wake balance.

I realise I am not making motherhood sound massively attractive. It’s not glamorous. It’s a massive sacrifice. I’ve struggled with this, and not gracefully. I love my children more than I could ever have imagined I would. I know how extremely blessed I am to have been able to conceive them and carry them. But I’ve been bitter, I’ve felt resentful of my husband and I’ve just felt that none of this sacrifice was very fair. At times this has led to streams of silent tears, or fits of rage and tantrums a toddler would be proud of.  At other times, I have silently got on with it, enjoyed the good days, accepted the bad and drunk an awful lot of coffee and the odd gin and tonic.

This weekend I had my perspective changed. I attended a wonderful day conference for Christian mums. I was privileged to be joined by some of my best friends. We were like children ourselves, practically giddy at the prospect of a day without kids or work. It felt wonderful to be in the presence of other people who knew my struggles. Who knew how hard it was to try my best to be a good and godly mum, and to feel like I fail at this an awful lot of the time. But best of all was the insight and truth brought by keynote speaker, Ness Wilson.  She described mothers as a ‘perfect snapshot of God’s perfect love’. I sniggered inside, hoping beyond hope that God loves better than I. But it went further. How we nurture and tend to our children builds a framework on which they will then be able to see and receive God’s love. They will know the love of God and recognise it for what it is when they are first loved by a mother who will sacrifice all for them. And God knows about sacrifice. Did He not make the ultimate sacrifice for us in giving up His very own son, coming to earth in the form of a man and suffering torture and death in order that we might be restored to full righteousness? I know this, but maybe such a sacrifice is too big for my tiny brain to compute. How about Jesus and the Disciples? They were busy. Really busy. The bible tells us that the demands on their time were so great that they barely had time to eat and rest. Mothers can relate to that.

I regularly pay lip service to the idea of ‘giving my all’ for God. I sing it in church often enough. And I’ve always thought I meant it. When I think about it now, I think I meant that I would give my all for the things I felt God was calling me to, the things I am passionate about. Yes, I will give my all to fight global poverty, to bring healthcare to those who don’t have it, to stand up for refugees and asylum seekers to have no voice, to serve the homeless… Will I give my all for the little things? Will I put my all into helping my 3-year-old cellotape his toilet roll vehicle creations? Will I lay aside the work I’m doing on my laptop help him get the colour of his homemade playdough just right?
So when I get up for the third time in the night and stumble towards the crying voice of my baby girl, lift her from her cot and sit feeding her in the darkness of her room… The comfort and love I show to her then will help her know how God loves her, how he longs to tend to her every need and sound, how he will never ignore her cry in the dark. What a privilege.